Tag Archives: Philip Pullman

Writer’s Block

I don’t recall talking about this fearsome obstruction before, and I came across an opinion by the great Philip Pullman, with which I heartily agree:

‘I don’t believe in it (writer’s block). All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?’

I’ve never suffered from being ‘blocked’. I didn’t do any creative writing for years, but that was more down to depression and a lack of self-belief. I know that it could be argued that not believing in yourself is the cement that holds writer’s block together, but there are still techniques to get things flowing again.

If I stop feeling the creative flow, slipping out of the groove, I’ll do something else. Editing is always there, and it’s sufficient purgatory to encourage a return to creative writing. An alternative is to make plans for future novels in my series Cornish Detective crime novels, jotting down ideas and web addresses for relevant research in folders on my desktop. I find that writing poetry or song lyrics sometimes frees up ideas relevant to my WIP.

If you are affected by writer’s block, just consider what it’s made of. It could be a great big block of sugar, which (forgive the crudity) will dissolve if you just pee on it. By that, I mean release your inner demon— writing down what makes you mad about books in general, how you hate specific characters in your story and how the hell did that author get published when you can’t find an agent? Your anger is mightier than any temporary glitch.

A more genteel way to destroy an obstruction is to go around it. If you’re stuck on chapter 18, throw some paper airplane messages ahead for what occurs in chapter 20. Whether you’re a ‘planner’ or a ‘pantser’ you’ve still got an idea of where your story is headed, so jot down key phrases you intend to use, chuck in an unexpected development or think of a way to include a favourite word you’ve always wanted to use.

Creating a book is like taking a walk in a forest—there’s more than one path through the trees.

Have any of you been blocked, and how did you deal with it? 

Pay the damned writer!

There’s been a kerfuffle recently over writers not getting paid for attending literary festivals. It caused Philip Pullman to resign as a patron of the Oxford Literary Festival.

This article by Nick Cohen ponders the problem of why we’re treated like doormats. It’s worth a read, as it encapsulates the something-for-nothing attitude that many book world executives have to their authors, not to mention readers who expect books for free.

Do click on the link to the video of Harlan Ellison’s foul-mouthed rant about being expected to work for free by a major film studio—he tells it like it is, and he made me smile.

I’ve wondered about this too, as today people expect authors to give their services away for free by attending festivals to read from their work and answer questions. It’s almost as if they think we’re all monied dilettantes who dabble in creating stories for our own amusement.

As we all know, not everyone makes millions from their writing, even though we all work hard at it. I estimated recently that since the summer of 2013, when I returned to creative writing, I’ve devoted 10,000 hours to researching, writing and editing my stories. In that time, I’ve earned about £40 from my efforts. I’m not going to attempt to work out what that makes my hourly rate of pay! 

Storytelling has been around for as long as humans could talk to one another. In the Middle Ages, troubadours or minstrels told stories to the public for payment, reciting traditional tales as well as those of their own making. Booksellers once took their wares on the road, flogging them from carts and panniers on pack animals. It’s as if modern day authors are expected to continue an age-old tradition, by being peddlers of their own literature, scraping a living from pennies.

(that’s me in the middle, that is….)

Swearing in Children’s Stories

I recently read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, the first part of a trilogy called The Book Of Dust.

Image result for la belle sauvage

Overall, I enjoyed it, but was a little shocked at the number of swearwords—not because they didn’t fit the boy speaker’s way of expressing himself—more because of the likely age of most readers of the story.

I’m not so naïve that I think children don’t know how to swear, but there is a danger that normalising bad language in fiction will lead to overuse in day-to-day speech. Swearing isn’t always a bad thing, as this article points out.

I’ve only ever written poetry for young readers, none of which had anything ruder than the word ‘bum’ in it. With my crime novels for adult readers, I’m well aware that there should be a lot more swearing in the dialogue, were I going for verisimilitude, as coppers and criminals aren’t known for being genteel. Instead, I have my characters use swearing in times of stress.

Various famous children’s books have included swearing, such as David Almond’s Skellig, which caused his publishers to have a heated debate over his use of the word “bollocks”—they left them in! It could be argued that the use of swear words is age-sensitive when young readers are leaving childhood to become juveniles.

Image result for skellig

Censorship of anything is contentious, but should young readers’ books carry warning stickers if they contain swearing? Sometimes swearing is a key element in the story. In 2014, Brian Conaghan published When Mr. Dog Bites, which tells the story of a teenager with Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition the author knows well, as he suffers with it. Every swearword appears in the text, but in a realistic way and not done to be sensational.

Image result for When Mr. Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

If you write for children, how do you deal with swearing?

Do you make up swear words if you write Fantasy or Science Fiction?

Becoming Invisible

I came across this quote from Philip Pullman, taken from his book of essays on storytelling Daemon Voices:

We who tell stories should be modest about the job, and not assume that just because the reader is interested in the story, they’re interested in who’s telling it. A storyteller should be invisible as far as I am concerned.

Image result for pullman Daemon Voices:

It reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s admission, as found in her book on writing Negotiating With The Dead

There’s an epigram tacked to my office bulletin board, pinched from a magazine — “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.”

Image result for atwood negotiating with the dead

It’s inevitable that some of our personal views will permeate the text.

Some authors of fiction deliberately take a stance that reflects their attitude, be it political, feminist, about gender fluidity or man’s desecration of the planet. Consider Charles Dickens’ writing, which contained important messages about poverty, inequality and social deprivation, which was based on personal experience.

The problem with remaining invisible is that in these days of self-promotion, selfies and blogging, we’re expected to share our feelings about what we wrote. Even if we’re only in the spotlight for a moment, that interview or videoed appearance remains on the internet forever…we wind up haunting ourselves!

It’s often stressed that we need to develop our ‘voice’—our own distinctive style of writing, but how to do that while remaining invisible feels like a conundrum.

I typed The End of my fifth novel last December, which produced the usual happy-sad reaction, before embarking on a couple of weeks of editing—which wasn’t too arduous a task, as I edited as I went along. However, after reading Philip Pullman’s advice, I’ll be on the lookout for places where I intrude as an author. Certainly, I share some traits and attitudes with my protagonist detective, but I don’t want it to read like I’m being preachy, using him as a mouthpiece.

Writing in the first person inevitably makes your story sound up close and personal, but it’s quite possible to do the same thing in, say, third-person omniscient if you mistakenly have your character reveal information that they couldn’t possibly know.

How do you handle the problem of straying into your own writing?